Sunday, November 11, 2012

Epistemic Closure


Epistemic Closure is a somewhat obscure philosophical concept which has been appropriated (quite inappropriately) by some on the right who have wandered from the path of true belief to describe what we heathens like to call the the right-wing echo chamber.  The key idea is that it's quite possible to live in a world of Fox News, Glenn Beck, Drudge and talk radio and get lots of reinforcement for beliefs which have no grounding in fact, or perhaps without suspecting that most others regard these beliefs as nuts.

Richard Feynman liked to say that the first duty of the scientist is to doubt his own theories.  Several religions take an opposite point of view, insisting that the highest virtue is to believe in the face of lack of evidence or even in the presence of contradictory evidence.  These, of course, are the people who mark themselves off from those who belong to what they scornfully call the "reality based community."  The Republican Party (I think) has embraced this "we create our own reality" notion for many years, and it rose up to bite them this election - in just the nasty way that the real reality always likes to.  In the face of plenty of evidence, they seem to have clung to the notion that (almost) all the polls really were wrong and were apparently genuinely shocked when they lost.

Of course Obama made a somewhat similar type of mistake when he blew the first debate.  Despite the evidence that Romney was a reasonably skilled  and highly experienced debater with a habit of making stuff up out of whole cloth, Obama was so blinded by his personal contempt for the man that he failed to prepare effective counters.  Instead of an echo chamber though, he got a thorough spanking by those who were forced to explain how badly he had screwed up.  If Michelle's face post debate was any clue, she was first in line with the bad news.

Andrew Sullivan reports some reflections on the psychological roots of our tendency to lock ourselves into various forms of reality denial from Nobel Economist Daniel Kahneman:

Essentially, we have two different thought systems that work very differently, and Kahneman refers to them throughout the book as characters he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is a marvel honed by millions of years of evolution that runs on automatic (and can’t be turned off). It’s a virtuoso at jumping to (usually correct) conclusions on the basis of very little information. A master at coming up with shortcuts (heuristics) that usually work, we couldn’t get through a minute of our day without it. As Kahneman points out, most of what we know about System 1 would have “seemed like science fiction” 30 or 40 years ago. Unfortunately, System 1 can’t be reflective. It can’t know what it doesn’t know, but it always knows that it’s right. And because it works so much faster and more smoothly than System 2, it almost always overrules our more rational selves.
System 2 is generally clueless about System 1’s flaws. It’s too slow and inefficient to handle immediate matters; it consumes huge amounts of energy, takes effort and time, and requires a great deal of self-control. Since “laziness is built deep into our nature,” we mostly glide along on System 1. System 2 is supposed to be the overseer, the skeptic, the doubter, but it’s often busy and tired and defers to System 1, which is gullible and biased. In fact, System 2 is often an apologist for System 1. “Its search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs,” Kahneman explains.
These notions are also fundamental to Jonathan Haidt's book The Righteous Mind  which I have frequently written about previously.